Whether you call it bubble or boba tea, this SoCal city is all about the big straws.
Move aside, wine trails, there’s a new drink worth following. Pasadena just launched a boba trail with a group of more than 30 spots serving up popular Taiwanese American bubble tea, most typically known for brown tapioca balls floating in milk tea, served with an extra large straw.
“There's still a huge sense of Asian pride around this beverage, symbolically representing acceptance for Asian Americans [and] AAPI pop culture exports,” Anna Yan, a spokesperson for Visit Pasadena, told Travel + Leisure. “With shops bringing the newest boba trends from Asia to Pasadena, such as cheese foam topping, hues of purples and blues from butterfly pea, handmade tapioca balls, and fluffy Japanese soufflé pancakes, boba culture continues to flourish as a culinary bridge for Asian pop culture exports.”
With roots tracing back to the 1980s on the island nation of Taiwan, boba tea — typically referred to as such on the West Coast and called bubble tea on the East Coast — found its way to the U.S. in the 1990s, particularly making a splash in the San Gabriel Valley, east of L.A., in communities like Rowland Heights, Hacienda Heights, and Pasadena. The influence was cemented in the Fung Bros. “Bobalife” music video, which uses Pasadena as a backdrop.
“The subculture was a significant part of social life for young Asian Americans who grew up at boba shops with study groups, on dates, and playing board games with friends,” Yan added. “It's the parent-approved, non-alcoholic activity enjoyed with friends. Now, as that ‘boba generation’ matures, boba culture has also grown into an appreciation of artisanal craft beverages with handmade ingredients, tea leaves sourced from premium regions, and artful presentations, just as it becomes mainstream in America.”
That’s exactly what can be found among the shops highlighted along the Pasadena Boba Trail. There are outposts of national brands, like Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea, 85c Bakery Cafe, It’s Boba Time, One Zo, and Beararology; as well as more localized chains, like 3Catea and Home Brewed Bar; and smaller businesses like Jin Tea Shop, Motto Tea Cafe, Miss Cheese Tea Cafe, La Moon Creamery, and Pillowtalk.
And just to show how much a part of Americana the Asian American drink is, the boba trail also traces many of the must-see sites along Route 66.
The southern California city, located about 12 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles and best known for its New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses parade, has about 18 percent of its population identifying as Asian and is often referred to as a “suburban Chinatown.”
“The large Asian American influence from surrounding neighborhoods have permeated Pasadena's culinary scene to much welcome, and boba culture is thriving as new food trends are introduced from overseas,” Yan said. “It's the perfect beverage to have in hand while strolling the sun-soaked Pasadena streets for shopping, sightseeing, or gossiping with friends.”
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